It was with a little thrill of fear that I descended into the Painted World of Ariandel for the first time. I always feel a little nervous entering a new area in Dark Souls, but that feeling was amplified by the reputation the franchise's DLC has for being extremely difficult. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about... mostly.
But despite being (somewhat) easier and shorter than expected, Ashes of Ariandel follows the template of Dark Souls DLC in other ways. In particular, it aims to address some of the fan complaints that have sprung up around the otherwise well-regarded entry—namely, that it feels more constrained and perhaps easier than other games in the series. Ashes of Ariandel responds by cutting loose a bit with the level design, opening with a fantastic open-ended area before moving through a decaying village, a frozen lake, and other interesting areas.
It begins with a peculiar NPC lurking in the Cathedral of the Deep, who after a short conversation teleports you into the Painted World of Ariandel—a nod to a similar area in the original Dark Souls. There you find snow, wolves, decaying bird people, and enemies who look like a cross between Wolverine and Freddy Krueger. Its typical Dark Souls, which is to say that its both mysterious and beautiful, encouraging you to delve deeper to figure out what exactly is going on.
Of course, we've also been here. How many terrifying villages have we visited in Dark Souls? How many beautiful castles have we seen perched on a majestic cliff? It's perhaps to the franchises credit that it never really gets old despite repeatedly going back to an easily recognizable bag of tricks.
In any case, Ashes of Ariandel feels more open-ended than a lot of other areas in Dark Souls 3, expertly masking its relatively small size with lots of shortcuts, as well as a smart use of elevation. In particular, the village that appears early on in the DLC is a pleasure to explore as it forces you wind your way slowly through narrow passages in search of the way forward. Later, you have to work your way down a criss-crossing mass of platforms that resembles a spiderweb, which makes for a memorable if nerve-wracking challenge.
Experienced fans should have no problem disposing of Ashes of Ariandel's challenges, which are pretty much par for the course in the series. If you're over level 90, you should be able to cruise through it with no problem... until the end, that is. The finale of Ashes of Ariandel is one of the nastier boss fights in the series—a three-part epic that will test all but the most hardened fans. The second form in particular is just brutal.
As a reward for completing Ashes of Ariandel, you get some pretty nice new weapons, including a wicked double scythe that is a delight to use. Defeating the one of the two bosses will also earn you access to a new PvP arena with a handful of new modes, making duels easier than ever to access. Maybe Dark Souls is on its way to being an eSport?
Here's the downside, though: Ashes of Ariandel is kind of short. There are only two bosses, and an experienced player can probably knock it all out in one or two sittings. Granted, brevity is the soul of wit and all that, but it doesn't really compare to previous DLC releases. In that regard, some Dark Souls fans may find it a tiny bit underwhelming.
Still, in the grand scheme of things, Ashes of Ariandel is another solid release for a series known for its strong DLC. It's well-designed, interesting to explore, and extremely pretty. Plus, it brings a bit more to the table in terms of PvP, which should make hardcore fans happy. I don't know that it'll swing the opinion of those who dislike Dark Souls 3 in the same way Crown of the Sunken King did for Dark Souls 2, but its good value in any case.
Regardless, it's always nice to have an excuse to log back into Dark Souls 3, especially when it looks this lovely.
From Software once again serves up a solid piece of DLC with Ashes of Ariandel, even if it is a tad short. It's full of beautiful vistas and interesting levels, and the boss fight at the end is a good challenge for high-level players. But those looking for something new and innovative are apt to be disappointed, as this is all familiar territory for the series. Still, From Software's execution is strong in this first piece of Dark Souls 3 DLC.